by Alan Weisman (2007). When hiking over an alpine pass, have you ever suddenly come across a gorgeous mountain valley filled with horrible condos, ski lifts and hotel and have indulged in the seductive fantasy `what if there wouldn’t be any people around?’ If the answer is yes, this book is for you. An original and utterly compelling, if morbid and sad, investigation into the future of our planet sans people. In a doomsday scenario reminiscent of “The Quiet Earth” or “The Day of the Trifids” or countless other science fiction movies and novels , the author extrapolates into the proximal and distal future with the aid of archeologists, biologists, physicists, engineers and others. Weisman starts by imagining what would happen to our houses and homes if people would simply disappear – wiped out by a virus or whisked away by aliens. He figures it would take Nature between 100 and 1,000 years to reclaim these, depending on how much stonework was used in their construction. What would happen to Manhattan? Within a day or two, the subway would flood and within a few years, wolfs and other wild animals would soon haunt central park, cats would became feral and would continue to hunt the grossly increased bird population, and Lexington Avenue would cave in, becoming a river in the process. Weisman visits places that have been left alone for decades – the DMZ between the two Koreas, the 30 km ‘Zone of Alienation’ around Chernobyl, the Green Zone in Cyprus – to observe how quickly Nature reclaims these regions. He figures that there are still enough open lands with enough wild animals today that they could rapidly do away with our domesticated animals we raise for food, work or companionship (except for cats). However, this will not be true anymore a century from now, when humanity will have wrecked so much of the planet that only the suitably evolved successors of our domesticated plants and animals will have filled ecological niches occupied and swept clean by mankind. The most chilling chapters are on the legacy left by plastic and nuclear energy, lasting well into geological times. Neither existed 50 years ago; now about 500 nuclear reactors litter the planet and 100 million tons of non-bio-degradable plastics are produced every year. Among the longest lasting human artifacts are the presidential portraits on Mount Rushmore – made out of granite in a geological very stable part of the country – and the two spacecraft Voyager 1 and 2 that have entered the distant realms of the solar system where the sun’s influence gives way to those of other stars. Parts of the book make for desolate reading. In my younger days, I was ‘Gung Ho’ about the future of mankind. Now, when I see the mess we have made of our planet, I frequently despair. This situation brings to mind Shelly’s Ozymandias
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert…Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Given the ever increasing pace of technological development and economic expansion, this can’t go on for very much longer without some large scale catastrophic, planetary-wide reorientation, forcing us to live within a dramatically reduced footprint (shades of Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”). A must read.